Red Star, Étoile Rouge, Stella Rossa, remain one of the most revered names in European football. True, Crvena Zvezda, as they are known to Serbs, the majority of whom support them, have only reached one major final: Bari, 1991.
The game itself was dreadful, and cynically settled on penalties, but Red Star, after campaigns dating back to 1956, had won the European Cup.
Yet this was a fine team, whose stars proved themselves in Serie A afterwards. With war, sanctions and hyperinflation, star-less Red Star were left with the two-man show of the stand-alone Serbian league. Little has changed since.
The club was founded before the end of World War II by young members of the Anti-Fascist League. They assumed the mantle of FK Jugoslavija, a top team from the pre-Tito era.
Taking over the defunct club’s stadium, red-and-white kit and squad, Red Star also attracted Rajko Mitić from Jugoslavija’s old rivals BSK. Captain and striker, Mitić led Red Star to a string of titles in the 1950s.
Once the mercurial Dragoslav Šekularec joined, Red Star became a feared name abroad. European Cup semi-finalists in 1957, Red Star made the quarter-final the following year. Pegging Manchester United back to 3-3 after being 3-0 down, hosts Red Star couldn’t take the tie to a replay. United, the Busby Babes, then flew back – via Munich. Poignant mementoes their last match before the air disaster of February 1958 are displayed in the Red Star Museum.
Playing home games at Partizan while their own stadium, the legendary Marakana, was being built, Red Star’s form duly dipped.
With Milan Miljanić as coach, and the emergence of Dragan Džajić, Stanislav Karasi and Kule Aćimović, Red Star enjoyed a resurgence at home and abroad from the late 1960s. Near 100,000 crowds gathered at the Marakana for the floodlit visits of Liverpool, Real Madrid (coached by Miljanić) and Panathinaikos. Red Star beat Real on penalties – but lost out to the Greeks in the 1971 European Cup semi-final.
In 1979, Red Star at last made a European final, a narrow UEFA Cup defeat by Borussia Mönchengladbach. Džajić had just moved upstairs, overseeing transfers and player development.
He signed a swift Dragiša Binić and a young Piksi Stojković from Niš, and Robert Prosinečki from Dinamo Zagreb. With Dejan Savićević later arriving from Titograd and Darko Pančev from Skopje, Red Star featured the greatest talents Yugoslavia had to offer – plus Miodrag Belodedici as sweeper. An ethnic Serb who had won the European Cup with Steaua Bucharest in 1986, Belodedici defected from Ceausescu’s Romania to join Red Star.
Losing on penalties to Franco Baresi’s Milan in the 1988-89 European Cup, Red Star saw the departure of Stojković to Marseille – only to face him in the European Cup Final in 1991.
Beating Bayern by a last-minute own goal at a zealous Marakana, Red Star arrived in Bari set up to defend. Penalties arrived, Siniša Mihajlović successfully blasting his towards the Adriatic, and the European Cup was won.
By the Intercontinental Cup victory that December, Yugoslavia was at war, and Red Star fans were led by paramilitary commander Arkan. Forced to play every game abroad, the European Cup holders surrendered their 1991 trophy in Sofia to Sampdoria.
Prosineški had already gone, Savićević and Mihajlović followed. Still overseen by Džajić, who refused Arkan ownership, Red Star could still produce players such as Dejan Stanković and Nemanja Vidić – but not keep them.
In 2014, debt-laden Red Star won their first title in seven years – only to be refused Champions League participation for financial irregularities. Thanks to goals from former Torpedo Moscow striker Hugo Vieira and Serbian international Aleksandar Katai, Red Star won another title in 2016, but their departures saw Partizan back on top in 2016-17.
With former their one-time youth player Vladan Milojević hired as coach in the close season, Red Star blazed a trail in 2017-18, making the group stage of the Europa League and cantering ahead of Partizan. Midfielder Nenad Milijaš is now in his third spell at Red Star, this time as captain, his time at Wolverhampton Wanderers most remembered for a strange red card at Arsenal during a Christmas fixture in 2011.
A one-season stint by prolific striker Aleksandar Pešić helped guide Red Star to a 28th national title, scoring 96 goals to do so. The departure of Pešić for Saudi Arabia has since allowed Ghanian international Richmond Boakye to shine – but it was two goals in two minutes by Comoros forward Ben Nabouhane that shocked Salzburg in August 2018, opening the door to the Champions League for the first time since the memorable year of 1991.
A home win over eventual champions Liverpool, the two first-half goals coming from Serbian international Milan Pavkov, was the first victory for a Serbian club in the group stage, and followed a creditable draw for the visit of Napoli – but these weren’t enough to lift Red Star into the knock-out rounds. In the league, with ex-Mönchengladbach and German international midfielder Marko Marin rediscovering dynamic form, Red Star waltzed to a record 30th title.
Qualifying for a second straight Champions League despite a late Ben Nabouhane own goal for Young Boys Berne, Red Star were drawn against Tottenham and Bayern Munich, rekindling memories of the epic semi-final of 1991.
Along with the totemic stadium it’s nicknamed after, the Rajko Mitić Stadium, aka Marakana, is one football’s most iconic venues. Home of Red Star Belgrade since 1963, it has hosted memorable European nights and derby games with Partizan.
Able to host 100,000-plus on such occasions, the Stadion Crvena Zvezda now holds 55,000.
Originally, when the home of Red Star predecessor SK Jugoslavija, this ground accommodated 30,000. Occupied by Red Star since 1945, then vacated in 1959, the stadium re-emerged a new, modern arena in 1963.
As well as 90,000-plus crowds for the visits of Real Madrid and Ferencváros, the Red Star Stadium hosted the European Cup Final of 1973, a 1-0 win for Ajax over Juventus, and the Euro ’76 decider between West Germany and Czechoslovakia, the first major final to be settled on penalties. Panenka’s cheeky little dink, it happened here.
The thunderbolt free-kick by Siniša Mihajlović, and his last-minute shot, deflected by Klaus Augenthaler to send Red Star into the European Cup Final, all took place before a fervent crowd here in 1991. These same fans gathered to celebrate the subsequent victory over Colo-Colo in the Intercontinental Final, supporters’ club leader Arkan brandishing a road sign seized from Croatia as a war souvenir.
Arkan also ran paramilitary operations, his soldiers commandeered from the Red Star’s Delije fans occupying the North Stand, the Severna Tribina. This was no longer terrace tribalism or even hooliganism. This was, quite simply, war.
Over a decade later, the Delije remain but the football is nothing to riot about, only on derby day with Partizan. Away fans are placed behind the opposite goal, jug, the number of sectors depending on demand. The main stand, with press and VIP areas, is the west/zapad stand, while east/istok is opposite.
The stadium has its own stop, Stadion “Crvena Zvezda”, on bus line Nos.42, 59 and 78, and minibus E7 – although only No.78 runs directly from the train station – allow about 15min. Currently not operative, tram No.9 also runs from the station, to nearby Trg Oslobodjenja, the junction just down the hill towards Partizan.
Bus No.47 runs to Trg Oslobodjenja from downtown Trg Slavije.
Admission is sold at the stadium on the day from the ticket office (blagajna) on Bulevar Oslobodjenja. You’ll pay around RS150 behind the goals, RS300 for the best seats.
Online, tickets are sold for the next match, in Serb (Latin script) only.
The Red Star Shop (Mon-Fri 9am-7pm, Sat 9am-3pm, match days) is under the main stand on Bulevar Oslobodjenja. Not the lovely blue retro shirts with the Red Star badges, the Red Triumph branded wine and a host of Red Star snacks, cheese puffs, chocolate croissants, and so on. There’s even hand soap.
On match days, hard-core Red Star fans open the Delije Butik, by the Marakana Lounge.
Museum & tours
One of the best of its kind, the first-floor Red Star Museum (RS200) opens from around 9am on weekdays – simply ask at gate and someone will phone up for Pedja, the friendly, English-speaking enthusiast who shows you round. Most visitors from England head straight to the display on the left as you walk in – a priceless record of the last match played by the Busby Babes here in 1958 before the Munich Air Disaster, a match ticket, a signed postcard by the players and photographs. Note in the visitors’ book, the signature and generous comments of Harry Gregg, the goalkeeper who pulled Bobby Charlton (and others) out of the burning plane.
Elsewhere, the rows and rows of pennants, and shelves and shelves of trophies testify to Red Star’s era as flagship club of Tito’s non-aligned Yugoslavia, fêted around Africa and Asia. Closer to home are ornate cups won in pre- and post-season tournaments in Spain and South America, so massive ‘it was harder to get them home than to win them,’ as Pedja puts it.
Among with detailed lists of great Red Star players and officials, and a display relating to the club’s first match in March 1945, pride of place goes to the European Cup won in Bari in 1991.
Tours (RS450/RS250 students, under-6s free) are also laid on but only with a minimum of ten people. Either contact +381 11 414 0909/+381 64 40 93 161, or go to the booth to the left of the main entrance as you look at it from Bulevar Oslobodjenja.
Opposite the main entrance across Bulevar Oslobodjenja, Avala is a Yugo-era bar/restaurant where many meet before the game, with a pleasant roofed front terrace and brick-and-wood interior.
At the main entrance, the Marakana Lounge is a tastefully designed café/restaurant done out in red, with striking images of classic players from the past, each against a five-pointed star. To one corner, photos display the construction of the stadium in the early 1960s. The main room leads to the VIP seats overlooking the pitch – this will be closed off on match days.
Above, the more bar-like Red Café has also been laid out in good taste, with Red Star-branded champagne and wine on offer. This also has a full view of the pitch, so access may be limited on match days.